Five senior Taliban members will continue to call Qatar home for the foreseeable future after officials here agreed to extend a travel ban on the former Guantanamo Bay inmates.
The men were released from the US-run prison last year in exchange for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured in Afghanistan. Under the initial deal, which expired this week, the Taliban members were transported to Qatar and prevented from leaving the country for a year.
The prisoner swap was controversial in the US, with some politicians suggesting that the men could return to the battlefield once the travel ban expires.
On Monday, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said the Taliban members would not be departing Qatar anytime soon, but gave no indication about how long they would remain here:
“The Government of Qatar has agreed to maintain the current restrictive conditions on these individuals as we continue the discussions to determine the path forward here when it comes to these five individuals. All five remain in Qatar, where they remain subject to extensive monitoring as well as travel restrictions,” she said.
“We continue to work to make sure that these individuals do not pose a threat to the US, and these are ongoing discussions about what will happen next.”
Living in Qatar
Locally, the Taliban members appear to have kept a relatively low profile. Several foreign journalists have visited Qatar in an attempt to find the men, but none appeared to have been able to locate them.
But internationally, some of the members have been accused of “reaching out” to individuals fighting US forces in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, US Senator Lindsey Graham – who yesterday announced that he’s running for the Republican presidential nomination – asserted: “The Taliban five are communicating with people inside Afghanistan.”
At the time, Qatar’s foreign minister – Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah – called the reports “totally false.”
“They are living according to the agreement we signed with the United States,” he said, according to Reuters.
American and Qatari security agencies “will monitor and pick up anything that will happen…I can assure you, no one has made an attempt to go back” to Afghanistan, he added.
Meanwhile, the New York Times cited US officials as saying that the former prisoners were previously members of the Taliban government and have aged while in custody, making it unlikely that they would be headed to the battlefield once they’re allowed to leave Qatar.
Where exactly the men would go once they are permitted to leave the country remains uncertain.
In a separate article, the New York Times noted that the Taliban members are under a UN travel ban, which means they are only legally allowed to travel to their native Afghanistan, where they would likely be arrested under Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s government.
Ismail Qasimyar, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said the men should either remain in Qatar indefinitely or be handed over to the Afghan government, according to Voice of America.
For the past several years, Qatar has attempted to serve as an intermediary between the Taliban and the US, as well as its Afghan government allies.
Karzai apparently took offense to the raising of a flag and installation of a placard that named the building the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the former name of the country when it was under Taliban rule.
More recently, Qatar hosted a “national dialogue” between Afghan and Taliban officials.
Qatar is keen to “establish security and stability in Afghanistan” through “open discussions,” said Yousif al Sada, the director of the Asian department at Qatar’s foreign ministry, according to QNA.
However, Reuters quoted an official Taliban spokesperson downplaying expectations by saying the organization’s participation in the conference “does not mean at all peace talks or negotiations.”